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La Pietra Dialogues On the World On-Line
Africa: See You, See Me!
Africa: See You, See Me!
Awam Amkpa, Curator, Professor of Drama New York University, Director of NYU Africana Studies
La Pietra Dialogues
February 17, 2011

Wooden framed vehicles known as Mammy Wagons fly through potholes and blind corners into uncertain landscapes across West Africa, at speeds well above the 56 k.m.h. (kilometers per hour) emblazoned on their tails. They derive their name from market women who transport food crops like yams, tomatoes, onions, plantains, and palm oil across their home countries and into other nations. Each wagon is manned by a driver responsible for maneuvering the lorry through treacherous roads, a mate who is usually a mechanic familiar with the inner workings of the vehicle, and a conductor who combines the roles of public relations man, errand boy, and crowd controller from his precarious perch on the edges of the wagon, exposed to the elements.

Besides discharging the important function of ferrying much needed food across nations, these Mammy Wagons serve as billboards for artistic sign writing and paintings. These paintings might feature popular films, national symbols, or interpretations of African folktales. Captions or even gnomic statements written in English or French accompany the images. Statements such as ― ‘The Lord is My Sheppard,’ ‘No Destination, Why Hurry,’ ‘Justice is the Poor man’s Wealth,’ ‘The World is not for you alone,’-- are typical. As legend has it, the Ghanaian novelist Ayi Kwei Armah derived the title of his ground breaking postcolonial pessimistic novel, ―The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, from the back of a truck. Indeed, as the Mammy Wagons speed across poorly maintained roads and careen around uncertain corners, their billboards offer readers and onlookers a canvas of desires, frustrations, and hopes for a better society.

Africa: See You, See Me takes its name from the artwork on a Mammy Wagon that I saw on a Nigerian road many years ago. The truck overtook the car in which I was riding, spurting a dark smelly smoke from its diesel fuel, and leaving us with the lasting image of two eyes framed by a paint-streaked map of Africa. The visual captured a continent in motion carried on the back of a

truck in locomotion. Within the etching of Africa’s map, nestled the inscription ― ‘See You, See Me!’ Embodying the aspirations of the artist or whoever commissioned the work, the playful injunction posed Africa as a perennial work in progress, a continent framed by overlapping modernities, negotiating corners of history into uncertain futures. The truck wanted all who traveled Nigeria’s dangerous roads, to acknowledge each other’s presence and to toast our mutual daring in forging ahead. As it crossed us, it inspired the occupants of my more sedate vehicle to wonder how we, as Africans, see and imagine ourselves, as well as how we want others to see us. How do we overcome derogatory images of African bodies and bring forth new representations—at once critical and celebratory, artistic and documentary—to convey through the medium of Africans themselves, their own stories of agency and determination to reinvent their worlds?

In this context, this exhibition uses photographic practices in Africa to draw attention to the ways in which Africans represent themselves, and the growing influence of these self-representations in shaping general contemporary modes of photographing Africa. The exhibition focuses in part on the discursive quality of the photographs as they articulate migrant identities in cities, document social events, and produce symbolic and material interpretations of society and history. Some of the photographs also draw attention to the corporeal forms of the medium—its color, exposures, framing and composition, as well as the conventions for manipulating light, to re-tell the stories of Africa and Africans.

African photographers inherited templates for photographic representations framed by colonial archetypes of Africans as objects of a history in which they were present, but over which they had no control. This paradigm of objectification promoted a weird presence/absence formula. It began to change, however, as African photographers began to use their art to resist colonial anthropological frames of disempowerment. Their works not only changed the pictorial frame but also developed a dialogic relationship with the fantasies and aspirations of their subjects. As Africans began to pose for their own photographs they seemed to say, “the camera must see me as I want to be seen.” There ensued a sometimes tension-fraught process of image-making, as African photographers engaged in critical dialogues with their subjects who strolled into their studios to commission portraits for their homes, families and communities. Similar tensions exist when African photographers frame their societies in ways that constitute at once critical and robust portraits of self-determination.

Africa: See You, See Me portrays the history of African photography and its influence on non-African imaginings of Africa and the African diaspora in all their diversity. Other prominent African curators such as Okwui Onwezor and Simon Njami have advanced our understanding of the origins, trajectories, complexities, and reception of image-making in Africa. This exhibition extends and continues their curatorial narratives by drawing attention to contemporary African re-framings of Africans in artistic and documentary photographs. Together, the photographs are texts of African subjectivities, archives of history and societies in the making, and methods for understanding how images contribute to emancipation. They critique the pathologies of postcolonial and neocolonial Africa by depicting the continent’s communities disentangling themselves from repressive nation states. While some of the photographs document the

participation of Africans in state affairs, others portray the formation of post-national voluntary communities as tools of empowerment.

Africa boasts heterogeneous histories and cultures. Its diverse, often cosmopolitan locations are both nodes in migration networks, as well as entrepots for creating and preserving artistic traditions. These locations traverse barricades or remain hemmed in by boundaries defined by nineteenth and twentieth-century history: that of European colonization in Africa, the Second World War, and anticolonial nationalism. The euphoria of independence yielded to neocolonial dictatorships that pitched African nation states against their citizens. Cynicism and distrust mounted as antagonistic parties vied for the continent’s minerals and commodities, whose very currency in global economies further dispossessed the people of the soil. It is these material realities of political repression and economic marginalization that contemporary African artists engage, by visualizing utopias of new beginnings.

Africa is more than a place. It is also many spaces of sensibility within and beyond the continent – in Europe, the Americas, and Asia -- that African artists pry open to install their presence. Their interventions in exhibition halls beyond the continent of their heritage have made a mark on recent photographs of Africa and Africans by non African photographers. Moreover, they have spurred intra-African, inter-textual dialogues about self-representation in Africa itself.

Africa: See You, See Me is organized in 3 parts. The first section features studio portraits of Africans seeking to write themselves into the urban landscapes to which they have migrated. It presents African photographers as they tamed, adapted and subverted the framing devices and photographic conventions bequeathed them by their former colonial masters. The black and white photographs by Meissa Gaye, Seydou Keita, J. Bruce Vanderpuije, Ricardo Rangel, Okhai Ojeikere, Mamadou Mbaye and Malick Sidibe illustrate a tense dialogue between the photographer and the photographed as they collaborate in inscribing African spaces and selves into photographic texts. They signify fantasies of self-hood, using costumes, make up, hairstyles, textile backdrops and theatrical poses to perform subjectivities of colonized places and postcolonial spaces. Other themes in this section include the structures of African cities, societies and communities in formation, and representations of looks outside the studio from photographers in every region of the continent. This part of the exhibition also includes photographs of some of Africa’s anti-colonial heroes who hoped for genuine liberation. Their images have been fragmented to symbolize the broken promises of African independence. Yet, rather than constituting a pessimistic retrospective, these pictures represent deconstruction as a prelude to reinvention in the 21st century.

The second section showcases early ethnographic portraits that imagined Africa as a wilderness peopled by Europe’s primitive ―Other. We have also used the strategy of re-reading these photographs to draw attention to them as objects within the history of photography. That history was itself a significant product of an industrialized world that defined not only progress, but also constructed those at the center and peripheries of such progress in certain ways.

The final section highlights contemporary photographs of Africa and Africans by non-African photographers who share a dialogic relationship with African artists. Thus, their work has expanded both African spheres of influence and multiplied the spaces in which Africans are photographed as subjects of history. Like the Mammy Wagon I once saw on Nigerian roads, these photographs join works presented in the other sections, to tell Africans and the rest of the world: See You, See Me.

Curator: Awam Amkpa

Associate Curator: Madala Hilaire

Produced by Africa.Cont, Lisboa, Portugal.

Scheduled to open September 2010 in Lisboa (Portugal) for 8 weeks, Florence (Italy) for 6 weeks, Accra (Ghana) for 4 weeks, Lagos (Nigeria) for 4 weeks and New York (USA) for 6 weeks

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